Incidents of anti-African or anti-Black racism in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, have made headlines recently, with a group of United Nations (UN) experts declaring the nation must urgently confront issues of racial discrimination in various aspects people of African descent experience there.
Co-directors of Black Conversations (BC), a student-led initiative at the Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland, shared accounts of anti-Black racism that people of African descent have experienced in the country.
BC provides a space where people of Afro descent can engage in discussions about their communities, their unique and shared experiences as racialized peoples in Europe and how they navigate life as Afro-descendants in academic and professional spaces.
Founded in 2020 by Diandra Dillon, BC was developed from “a desire to foster a space where individuals of African descent could be at the forefront of conversations discussing their unique experiences.”
Originally from Jamaica, Dillon relocated to Los Angeles during high school before completing her undergraduate studies at Smith College, where she decided to study abroad in Switzerland.
“During my year abroad, I think I fell in love with the country. Eventually, I applied to the Graduate Institute and continued my academic journey there,” Dillon said.
Due to immigration, Switzerland is becoming more racially diverse and there are approximately 100,000 Black people currently living in Switzerland. In 2017, the Swiss Federal Statistics Bureau reported that 51 percent of Swiss viewed racism towards Black people as a minor problem after issuing a survey.
Dillon mentioned the idea of BC stemmed from her experience learning about Black Studies in Jamaica and her time discussing social issues with classmates and other members of the African diaspora.
“I recruited students after having various socially conscious conversations in class and thought it’d be interesting to hear from different members of the African diaspora,” Dillon said.
Before becoming a campus organization, BC participants met in social settings such as bars. “We wanted to have events to discuss issues in our universities and other parts of the diaspora, and not limit ourselves to perspectives from international African students in Europe,” Dillon continued.
Various people of African descent have recently shared their experience with anti-Black sentiment and racism in Switzerland, including students, filmmaker Rachel M’Bon and African American expatriates.
Geneva “Gia” Oke and Ramata Franklin are graduate students at IHEID and co-directors of BC. Oke is a Nigerian American who was born in Long Beach, California and completed high school in Alpharetta, Georgia. Franklin is a Malian-American who was born and raised in Altadena, California and completed high school downtown in Pasadena, California.
Currently engaged in anti-racist activism at the IHEID, Oke and Franklin candidly discussed their opinions and experiences with anti-Black racism.
“In addition to the space being predominantly white, the country is as well and has that mentality. Black people aren’t the majority in the U.S., but there’s an awareness of Blackness,” Oke said, reflecting on her experience in Geneva and at IHEID.
“People here are very uninformed and sometimes they’re ignorant,” Oke continued. “It’s clear that many people grew up in homogeneous environments, but I shouldn’t always have to educate people when I’m trying to get my own education.”
Last year, UN human rights experts declared that people of African descent endure racial discrimination in several aspects of Swiss society after visiting the nation.
Members of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited Bern, Zurich, Lausanne, and Geneva, to gather evidence of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other intolerance negatively impacting people of African descent.
“In the U.S., Blackness is legitimized, varied and complex. As a racialized person, but specifically, a Black woman, being here is sometimes stressful,” Franklin said.
“I believe I am being safeguarded by a higher power, because I hear about racist microaggressions in class and outside of the academic space, and some things really shock me. For instance, my friend got spat on and threatened with a knife. After bringing this incident to the police, their initial response was lackluster,” Franklin recounted.
Franklin mentioned her friend continuously re-explained the story and advocated for himself to prove what was done to no avail. “They didn’t take it seriously and told him ‘he couldn’t prove it’,” she continued.
The Swiss Federal Commission Against Racism reported that Black people in Switzerland do not have equal access to public services, housing, employment, or the protection of the judicial system and are often subject to racial profiling by authorities. Additionally, anti-Black and xenophobic sentiments in Geneva have also been espoused by non-white people, as notions of racialism and colorism have also led to discrimination, according to Dillon.
“It really sucks because sometimes white people were not the perpetrators. North African and Asian people have used racist language against me in Geneva,” Dillon said.
Black Conversations fosters a space where a variety of racial issues can be discussed. BC has provided a sense of community for members of the African diaspora in Geneva and around the world, despite arbitrary acts of anti-Black racism. Although BC has grown to have an international audience and participants, Dillon mentioned that she did not expect it to expand beyond Switzerland.
One virtual convening included over 90 international participants from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Other key BC events included author and professor, Heidi Mirza, and political activist and journalist, Rosa Clemente.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew